Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Oldest Monarchy

One can find a number of different monarchies which certain historians and writers will attach the title to of being “the oldest monarchy” in Europe or even the world. What can be reasonably asserted is that the oldest monarchy still functioning in the world today is the monarchy of Japan. Although its origins trace back to the legendary foundation of Japan (not uncommon, particularly in the Far East) with figures and lifespans few would consider entirely accurate, even if the earliest names and dates are dismissed Japan still usually comes out well ahead of all others. HIM Emperor Akihito (currently reigning) is officially listed as the 125th Emperor of Japan dating from the reign of Emperor Jimmu on February 11, 660 BC.

In Europe it is the Kingdom of Denmark that is generally accepted as the oldest monarchy with HM Queen Margrethe II of today being able to trace the line of her predecessors back to roughly 936 AD with the accession of King Gorm the Old. Denmark also has a listing of legendary monarchs going back much further though obviously it is hard to separate fact from fiction in those cases. Still, there are some disputing claims. For example, King Alfred the Great of Wessex was the first monarch to style himself “King of the English” (or Anglo-Saxons) and his reign commenced in 871 AD with his taking of the title dated as sometime around 886 AD. However, it was his grandson King Athelstan (whose reign started around 924 AD) who was the first monarch to rule over mostly the same area as what is considered England today.

However, this raises the question as to whether or not a “monarchy” is more or less than a title. If one is to go by which figure in Europe retains the oldest unique title the winner would likely be the Roman Catholic Pope whose title, “Supreme Pontiff” predates Christianity itself being used by numerous Roman Emperors and officials of the Roman Republic long before the birth of Christ. It was though not until 381 AD that the Roman Emperor Gratian officially transferred this title to Pope St Damasus. If the Papacy is to be regarded as a monarchy it would be the oldest, dating from the life of Christ and the “passing of the keys” to St Peter. However, this gets into religious territory exclusively as St Peter did not become Bishop of Rome until some years later and the Papacy did not hold sovereignty over any actual territory, as a monarch, for some considerable time even after that.

The line of the Kings of France has been dated back to 428 AD which puts them back farther than the Danish or English kings but they are thwarted by the fact that there is no longer a reigning King of France today. What also complicates matters in the England-Denmark dispute over age is the fact that England did not maintain its independence throughout that great period from the first “King of the English” to today. There was the Norman conquest in 1066, the Dutch conquest (albeit largely welcomed) in 1688 and a number of changes in dynasty. Denmark has had changes in dynasties as well but have been more fortunate in maintaining their independence. Their monarchy has also been continuous whereas the English at one point overthrew and executed their King (Charles I in 1649) and had a republican dictatorship until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. It is at this point that the partisans of England will usually bring up the occupation of Denmark by Nazi Germany during World War II. However, sad as that was, it must be remembered that the King of Denmark, Christian X, did not leave his country, nor was he ever deposed as monarch during the occupation. Germany regarded Denmark as a “protectorate” and never officially took direct control of the country. The status of Denmark, it seems, withstands the contests to her title of “oldest monarchy” in Europe.

Well, that all may be well good, you might be thinking, but why bring up this topic here? Because, believe it or not, there are writers who have stated (perhaps without giving it too much thought) that the Principality of Monaco is the oldest monarchy in Europe. Readers of this blog will know that is certainly not the case. It was not until 1297 that a Grimaldi first set foot in Monaco to take it from the Ghibellines of Genoa with Lord Rainier I titled as the first sovereign ruler of Monaco. However, Monaco cannot be easily dismissed either and while it cannot claim to be the oldest monarchy in the world or even in Europe, the House of Grimaldi is often seriously considered the oldest reigning family in the world. It is a fact that there was a Grimaldi ruling Monaco in 1297 and there is a Grimaldi ruling Monaco today -something no one else can really say, both because current royal dynasties do not go back as far in the countries they now preside over and because none of the monarchs of older kingdoms and even dynasties still actually rule their countries as the Prince of Monaco does.

However, there is always a catch, as they say, and that is somewhat true in this case as well. For example, the English monarchy has changed royal families a number of times over the centuries. Today it is the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (lately named Windsor) which dates from the reign of Queen Victoria whose husband was Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Prior to that time it was the House of Hanover after 1714. Prior to that time it was the House of Stuart (though the senior line was driven out in 1688) after 1603 before which it was the House of Tudor. During all that time and all those changes it was always the House of Grimaldi that ruled Monaco. Where cries of “foul” might arise is over disputes of what makes a reigning house -blood or legal name and title? In 1731 the Grimaldi Princess of Monaco, Louise-Hippolyte, (the only Sovereign Princess in Monegasque history) died of smallpox and the throne passed to her husband Prince Jacques I and then to her oldest son. Prince Jacques was of the Matignon family (as regular readers will know) but according to the rules of succession in Monaco laid down by Seigneur Jean I, those wishing to succeed to the throne by marrying a daughter of the House of Grimaldi must renounce their own family name and coat of arms and legally adopt the name and arms of Grimaldi. Moreover another such change came with the passing of Prince Louis II when the throne passed to Rainier III whose father was of the French noble house of Polignac.

So, contestation of the claim of the Princely Family of Monaco to be the longest reigning family still ruling today stems from those who accept only direct descent in the male line of a family. However, even this tends to fall apart today as most people in Britain, for example, would not think that their whole royal family changed since the time of Queen Victoria or that the current Prince of Wales represents a different royal family than that of his mother Queen Elizabeth II. All those who have succeeded to the Monegasque throne, other than Jacques I, have a male or female-line of relation to the original Grimaldi founders of the Principality of Monaco and even Jacques I and all others who married into the family and stood in the line of succession have legally taken the name and arms of the Grimaldi family. Therefore, while not the oldest monarchy in the world, the House of Grimaldi can boast of being the oldest reigning house still ruling over a sovereign nation today.

1 comment:

  1. it is a good article with a knowledgeable content which may surely help the readers.


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